Friday afternoon, Franny Schauber and I stood on the deck of his cousin’s bungalow and watched as Deep Point appeared and disappeared through the bands of rain that swept up the river. “You know, Jim,” he began, “the farmers of Kent County ought to get together and mail me a check every time I bring the Mystery down here. It hasn’t rained in six weeks and tonight after two weeks of leaving the boat in the sun to dry out we get this!” Besides the water the boat was absorbing and adding to her weight, the evening before regattas on Chester River are traditionally time for pleasure sails on the Mystery. Getting together on Friday serves the purpose of getting the man-power to step the masts for the race and also gives family and friends an opportunity to sail, since pleasure sailing is the heart of the Mystery.
By the time I returned Saturday morning, the weather had cleared to a sparkling day. Franny’s Cousin Dennis had already set and run his trot line, netting half a bushel of crabs. Most of the crew was there so we raised the foremast and made ready to tow out to the race with Mystery’s tender Polite. Franny and Dennis built Polite from pine strips, double hulled and filled with Styrofoam. She is flat bottomed with low freeboard to be able to service the canoe either upright or not. The name Polite was inspired by a photo of a sign that at first reading appeared to say “Police” and at sea, with a tippy boat under you, it’s a heartening deterrent to pleasure boats with big wakes to get them to slow down.
The first race started in about six knots with the wind out of the west favoring a starboard tack start but as soon as we committed to that tack the wind shifted to west favoring the other tack. Most of the other boats were able to take advantage of the shift and tacked into clear air but we had to fall off forcing the boat under us, Patricia, below the pin end. Much to our surprise, Island Bird squeaked past our bow on port tack in a spectacular bid to be windward boat, but crossed the line early and had to restart. As soon as we gained speed we tacked and were almost able to lay the windward mark. We were fourth at the start behind JD, Blossom and Lark but we caught Lark at the windward mark, lost her again on the reach, then nabbed her in the end finishing third.
If the least appealing aspect of Log Canoe sailing is capsizing, the second is losing a halyard up the foremast. The only saving grace was that Franny couldn’t point the fickle finger of responsibility at any of Us. Last weekend the kite sheet was lost up the mainmast but that was not a big deal because it can be retrieved under way. However, the kite halyard is on the foremast, and because of the mast’s size the boat has to be taken to shore and derigged. But being of stout heart we rallied, got our midday exercise, ate, and made it back to the starting line in good time.
The afternoon race started under similar wind conditions as the morning and we got off to a decent start. Tacking over to starboard tack at the weather mark, Patricia gained an overlap with just enough room, when appearing out of nowhere, JD shot up between us and the mark on port, a clear violation of our starboard tack right of way. It has been remarked to me how quiet the crews of log canoes are. What seems like great eloquent yachts and stoic crews at a distance is more like a melee and meat grinder up close. The projectile laden language is awe inspiring. Patricia was the meat in the sandwich and Mystery ended up with her jib boom in JD’s outrigger. Fortunately we were able to disentangle without damage and we sailed off to the next mark while JD did a 360 around the buoy as is prescribed by the rules.
On Sunday the wind shifted to the south and the course was reversed from Saturday, all marks left to port. Seems simple enough, but the sharp eyes of our foresheet tender and skipper realized this would mean looping around the mark in a circle, not an impossible maneuver but if there were more that one boat at the mark it could cause havoc. We informed the race committee and they changed the rounding.
In July of 1863, a Confederate soldier observed after the battle of Little Round Top, that “Every fellow was his own general. Private soldiers gave commands as loud as their officers; nobody paying any attention to either.” When you have nine wooden boats averaging fifty feet overall including bowsprit, jib boom and outrigger, anywhere from seven to fifteen crew per boat, all shoehorned into a starting line, all vying for clear air and first to cross, the allusion to the chaos of battle cannot be far fetched . Amid shouts of “Come up,” “You can’t do that,” “Starboard!!”, “No room,” “Barging!” etc., coming from the mouths of a hundred sailors, beam to beam and head to tail, that’s a lot of hot air. Years ago Bill Grieb, the quintessential keeper of cool, (Mitchell’s father) used to sail Mystery. On an occasion similar to this I asked him how he could manage with all the noise. He just looked at me and smiled and said, “I haven’t heard anything from before the mainmast in years.”
After the starting gun, things quieted down and JD took the lead with Island Bird to weather and Lark below us. Slowly we gained on Lark when fifty yards in front of us in a surreal scene the mainsheet tender of JD slowly rolled off of the outrigger and into the water. JD responded, slowly rounding into the wind to lose way and get her back aboard — one of the log canoe racing rules it that you must finish with as many crew as you start with (Peter Eslinger, the skipper of Silver Heel also found his way overboard when pulling on a line that was not secured).
We ducked under her getting to the mark first with JD, Persistence, and Heel in hot pursuit. The wind was in the east but slowly dying. Persistence and Bird stayed high and caught a little land breeze but it too weakened. JD and Heel were further out in the river but got headed and tacked towards Reed Creek, where a long fishnet was staked far out into the river. Heel led the way and found enough room between the net and shore followed by JD and Mystery. The breeze became spotty as it clocked around to the south but the rest of the race was pretty much following the leader. We nearly caught Heel at the finish and behind us Persistence came on like a freight train, beating us on time.